Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis is a landmark of silent cinema and of science fiction cinema; most of the science fiction films that have appeared since then are indebted to its imagery. But shortly after its initial release, about an hour was cut from it, and since then it has only circulated in more or less mutilated versions. A restoration in 2002, currently available on DVD, restored some of the lost footage. Now, following the 2008 discovery of a print in an Argentine archive, what is being billed as "The Complete Metropolis" is playing in theaters, and I saw it last Saturday. The new footage is of course of great historical importance, but nevertheless the new version has been oversold.

(In what follows, I assume readers have seen the 2002 restoration. If you've only seen an earlier version, of course a lot more footage will be new to you than it was to me.)

First, it isn't complete. While 25 minutes have been added, and presumably the film is now nearly complete, an important scene is still missing and summarized in intertitles. (Apparently this is due to damage to the print.) of course, "The Almost Complete Metropolis" would be a less compelling tag line, but technically this is still false advertising.

Secondly, contrary to what's implied in the New York Times article reprinted in the program at my showing, the new material doesn't transform the film. Pauline Kael once called Citizen Kane "a shallow masterpiece." If so, then Metropolis is a silly masterpiece, and the restored version remains so. If anything, it demonstrates that the incoherence and disjointedness of earlier versions cannot be blamed on missing footage.

Most glaringly, the new footage does nothing to fix the plot's biggest hole: that the actions of Joh Fredersen make no sense. In the first place, why does he want to destroy Maria's influence over his workers? She's actually doing him a favor by keeping the workers quiet. In the second place, why does he allow the rebelling workers free rein? Rotwang tells Maria that he does so so that he will have an excuse to use force against them, but if that's his motive then there's no need for him to go as far as letting them destroy their underground city, which he will now have to rebuild at great expense (since he needs workers, and the workers will need somewhere to live). In any case, Fredersen never gives any indication of wanting to use force against the workers.

The new version does restore a subplot which was missing completely from earlier versions, involving Josaphat, Georgy 11811 (the worker with whom Freder switches places), and the Thin Man. But this subplot adds little, if anything, and ultimately goes nowhere. It does expland on the film's religious themes, but these are still half-baked. But then, nobody watches Metropolis for its "ideas" anyway.

All this is not to say that the new footage adds nothing, or that there's no point in watching the new version. The new version is better than the 2002 version, particularly the film's final third, where much if not most of the new footage appears. The rescue of the children is lengthened substantially, and the added footage makes the sequence more more dramatic and suspenseful. In the scenes that follow there is not as much new footage, but what there is also adds drama. There is nothing "difficult" about any of this footage, so I'm baffled as to why these cuts were made. It's as if the producers of Safety Last, deciding the film was too long, cut fifteen minutes out of Lloyd's climb up the skyscraper.

To sum up, you should certainly see the new version if it's playing in your city, but it's not worth making a special trip. The DVD and Blu-Ray will be out in November, and the current theatrical showing is projected off a Blu-Ray disc anyway, so unless you're really impatient you'll lose nothing by waiting for it.

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